Updated: Nov 20
As the holiday season gets underway, many of us will be spending time with our families. Although this can be joyful, some people find that it’s stressful as well. The prospect of a family dinner may not sound so great – in fact, you may wish that you could just avoid the whole thing.
If you’re feeling this way, it could be a sign that you need to set some boundaries with one or more of your family members. What are boundaries? How can you know which ones to set, and how can you go about doing this?
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are simply an expression of what types of treatment feel okay and not okay to you. When you set a boundary, you’re letting the other person know that you don’t want to be treated in a certain way. It’s important to do this in a respectful way. Rather than lashing out in anger, you can calmly explain how you feel and request that your boundary be honored.
If you set boundaries that are too rigid, then you’ll push people away, and it may be hard to form close relationships at all. However, if your boundaries are too loose or permeable – or if you’ve never expressed any boundaries at all – then this tends to feel very stressful, and can damage relationships.
Many of us have been socialized to place others’ comfort above our own. We may believe that love means that you let people act however they want towards you. However, the truth is that boundaries help to protect our love and joy in relationships. By letting people know when they’re hurting you, you’re giving them the chance to adjust how they behave, so you can feel more comfortable and free to truly be yourself. In this way, boundaries can actually bring two people closer together, rather than driving them apart.
How do you know what boundaries to set?
Even if you understand the importance of boundaries in a general way, it can be challenging to know what boundaries you need to set. How do you know when something needs to become a boundary?
One great guideline is to pay close attention to your feelings. When your boundaries are crossed, you may feel:
Taken advantage of
If you notice that you feel any of these emotions towards a family member, take some time to consider what caused it. Journaling about the situation may be helpful. Thoroughly explore the feeling, and consider specifically what behaviors by your family member seem to trigger that feeling in you. It can be tough to do this in the moment, but reflecting on it later often gives you the space to fully explore.
For example, maybe your aunt always mentions your body weight at holiday dinners, and comments on how much you’re eating. You might feel a pang of hurt each time she says something like this. You may need to set a boundary around these types of comments.
How can you set boundaries in a loving way?
It’s very common for someone to simply tolerate the crossing of their boundaries for a long time. Often, this eventually results in lashing out at the other person about it. You may stew in resentment and anger, until it eventually erupts.
It’s much better to calmly express your boundary. This may be easier to do outside the heat of the moment. If you’re able to talk to your aunt before the family dinner, you could let her know that her comments on your weight are hurtful to you, and ask her not to mention your weight or how much you’re eating. Approach the situation with respect – assume that she hasn’t been intentionally hurting you, but just didn’t realize how she was making you feel. (This may or may not be true, but it’s better to approach the conversation this way.)
If you can’t talk to her ahead of time, you may need to do it at the dinner. When she comments on your weight, you could simply say, “Comments about my body weight are hurtful to me. Please don’t mention my weight again. If my weight continues to be discussed, it won’t be healthy for me to remain in the conversation.”
You also have to be willing to follow through on your boundaries. Once you’ve asked her not to mention your weight, if she does it again, let her know that you won’t be able to stay in a conversation with her if she continues discussing your weight. If she ignores your boundary and keeps making the comments, then you can say, “It’s not healthy for me to remain in this conversation right now.” Then leave – move across the room to talk to someone else, or if you need to, leave the dinner entirely.
Support for setting boundaries with your family
Setting boundaries can be challenging, particularly if you’ve never done it before. But it’s crucial to do this if you want to have joyful relationships. Simply trying to “let it go” might feel loving at first, but the truth is that it inevitably harms the relationship over time. It’s more loving to express the boundary, so the other person has the chance to adjust their behavior and maintain a truly close relationship with you.
If you’d like some support in setting boundaries with your family, please feel free to reach out to me. I have a ton of experience with doing this, and I’d be happy to support you as you learn more about it. Our MGS Academy community is also a great place to reach out for support. We’re preparing to open the doors to the brand-new version of the program – head here to learn more or to get on the waitlist.